A logo is the most important element of a brand’s image. It defines the whole identity of your business; its purpose, its mood, its quality standards. It’s the image people will immediately associate with your brand, what’s going to trigger the emotions linked to their experience with your products. It can become an ultimate seal of quality in the collective psyche, or hurt your brand almost as badly as any faux pas you might commit. This is why it is absolutely crucial that you don’t overlook this part of your branding strategy.
However, things can get tough when it’s time to pick who is going to be the most qualified professional to take care of it. Advertising agencies, freelance designers, logo designers, brand strategists, lettering artists, identity designers; the choice is confusing and paralyzing. It’s difficult to understand what makes every one of these people special, which one is made for you, or even what you might lose by choosing one instead of the other.
First, let it be said that any of those options (and many other) are valuable. There are no right or wrong answers, only solutions that work better in certain cases. I respect everyone who is doing logo design with care and professionalism, even if they’re not letterers. My goal isn’t to run anyone down to promote my own specialty, but to help you get some clarity about how a lettering artist in particular can create tremendous value for your brand.
What’s a logo?
Logomark, logotype, wordmark, symbol, lettermark… it can become confusing very quickly. Many people use the same word and have a different idea in mind, and it may very well result on expectations being clouded by a misinterpretation of the different terms.
In logo design, you can determine three main kinds:
Letter-based logos. They are logos that only use type, whether it’s custom lettering or a pre-existing font.
Combined logos, that associate type and a symbol. They often are declined either as type only or symbol only on different mediums.
Iconic logos. These are logos that solely use an icon, a drawing, a symbol or a pictogram. It’s more rare, many logos which use a strong symbol also have a version with type. In most cases, these brands started with a combined logo, then evolved to a symbol only because their notoriety allowed them to.
Indeed, almost all logos contain type. Try to think of any symbolic logo that you know, and in most cases they in fact come with text. That is because a logo is made to stick in people’s minds. It needs to become a visual stimulus that’s as strong as the smell of your favorite dish or the sound of a classic song. A logo’s goal is to recall memories: when you see the mark, you need to immediately associate it with all the values that the brand conveys in its commercials, the features that they highlight, your own experience with it, and the sum of it all is supposed to create an emotion that, hopefully, draws your attention. However, reaching this goal is a process which almost all the time requires associating an image with a word.
With letter-based logos (as know as logotypes and wordmarks), especially those that use custom lettering instead of a font, you get to make the type become the symbol. Coca-Cola and IBM are perfect examples: their style is so graphic that you totally forget that you’re reading the mark, and actually visualize it as a whole shape that creates immediate connections in your mind.
Type is, therefore, a fundamental component of logo design, which make lettering artists very interesting candidates. Indeed, as obvious and omnipresent as they are in our everyday lives, letters require a deep understanding for them to work well together. Style, weight, spacing and kerning, legibility at large and small scale, harmony, negative space; the art of drawing letters is a lifetime’s pursuit. A quick glance at the work of lettering legends as Doyald Young or Herb Lubalin is enough to understand how spectacular a seemingly mundane little letter can become when you decide to spend your whole life specializing in drawing it.
Why hire one lettering guy when I can hire an agency full of graphic designers?
Hiring an agency often is the option people choose when they have a big branding project that involves more than just the logotype, because it feels like the size of the team should match the size of the task. While this isn’t an invalid argument, it somehow became some sort of a standard over time: a branding project feels like it will be handled better if multiple people work on it. In fact, this approach is rooted in insecurity: when you are investing a lot in something as important as your image, you tend to lack objective thinking. Therefore, more sounds like better to your ear because you feel it leaves less margin for error.
And this is deeply, inherently wrong.
More isn’t better
Opting for an agency is no less of a good choice than any other solution, but believing that more is better is bad judgment. Many people working on a logotype can actually make the process way more difficult, because it induces more choice which inevitably leads to more stagnation. A huge aspect of leading a project to completion, especially in the field of graphic design, relies on the ability to take decisions. You need to make choices, select a path to follow and give up on the myriad of other possibilities. Therefore, involving more than one brain into such a decision can make this process incredibly slower, harder, and eventually hurt the end result.
Choisir, c’est renoncer (choosing means giving up)
The charm of working with one freelance person is exactly what you’re looking for when you’re going to your local bakery instead of grabbing bread at the supermarket: the delight of person-to-person interaction, and the feeling of going straight to the source. When you are removing layers between you and your end product, you’re enabling success by avoiding miscommunication.
Indeed, what better way of making sure your goals and needs are perfectly understood than by talking directly with the person who will be working on your project? What is more comforting than dealing directly with the person which job is to create, rather than with someone whose end goal is to sell? Again, my point isn’t to make you believe that agencies don’t care about their clients. However, it is unarguable that creative projects have a better shot at success when directly discussed with creatives, not sales representatives.
Why not use a font?
You are unique. You are willing to stand out. Yet, using a font for your logo is the best way to make your brand look sorely ordinary.
A font is designed to be versatile. It’s made to be purchased by multiple people, and used in many different contexts. It wasn’t designed for you and your brand, but for anyone who might feel it fits to the general mood of his project. Its goal is to fit most cases, not yours in particular.
Using a font in logo design is leaving a part of your brand identity be defined by something that wasn’t intentionally designed for you. Not only you’re risking to look exactly like any other brand which logo has been made in the same « design era » as yours, but you’re immediately ranking among the businesses that obviously care too little about their image not to allow any level of ordinariness define them.
Am I hating on fonts? Of course not. There are plenty of typefaces out there that I adore, and let’s not forget that they also started on paper. However, using them for designing a logo is a cheap approach: fonts are made for text, titles, baselines; they can be part of a whole branding project, not as the core element of a custom, high-quality logotype. The times when you could build a unique and impactful logotype with your favorite weight of Helvetica are over: unless you’re a huge corp with enough funds to plaster it on every surface possible for people to see, using a font will most likely make your brand as memorable as a piece of furniture from Ikea.
Going with custom lettering is opting for branding excellence. It allows a level of originality and care that is up to the standards of brands that don’t leave anything to chance. It’s the line between being perceived as unique or generic.